Last week I wrote on strategic thinking and a strategy for making major decisions. This post focuses on mindfulness in decision making–working with forces that are structural and often not easily seen. I draw on Phillip Moffitt's work on making mindful decisions (see chapter 9, Emotional Chaos to Clarity). Phillip claims that decision-making is a source of emotional chaos in everyone's life.
The absence of a clear practice for decision-making and an awareness of what is happening in our own mind, body and heart can result in our neglect of a crucial decision or making decisions that are ineffective, costly and damaging. Phillip advises we first distinguish between a decision to be made and embracing reality's operations.
Before you can begin to make a wise decision, you first be real with yourself about the decision: is there a genuine decision to be made, or are you just postponing the inevitable?
Phillip advocates mindful decision-making to go beneath the surface level of moment-to-moment life experience to see the truth of what's happening.
In daily life mindfulness helps you see clearly what needs to be done, what you are capable of doing, and how it relates to the larger truths of life. Applying mindfulness to decision making leads to clearer thinking and to staying connected to your core values, which is crucial to your peace of mind.
Moffit specifies 3 stages of mindful decision-making.
Stage One: Come into the Present Moment
…direct your attention to the felt experience of this particular decision.
How does it feel in your body right now? Do you feel pressure? Anxiety? Often you don't notice what's going on and miss the body's signals telling you what to do. By feeling the decision in your body, you connect with your intuition.
Often our moods, sensations and emotions are informative. When a decision is optimal, we will experience coherence and alignment of our strategies, narratives and moods.
Next start to name the actual decision you are making, as best you're able, which will help bring it into focus.
Naming may be the single most useful skill you can develop for decision making. By naming the question, you clarity it for yourself. You may be surprised at how hard it is for you to correctly name the decision in highly charged situations.
Putting the decision into language–I recommend in writing–enables us to reflect, evolve and refine our articulation as we progress.
Another important step in being mindful of a decision is to notice if you're obsessing over the decision instead of engaging in making it.
If you are replaying the same thoughts over and over in your head, this is often a sign you're avoiding making the decision. Your obsessive thinking means you are focusing on your fear of not getting it right rather than focusing on the decision. When you become mindful that you're just recycling your same old anxious thoughts about the decision, redirect your mind elsewhere. Often just noticing obsessive thinking and naming it will help you to stop obsessing.
State Two: Clarity through Investigation
Phillip's guidance for clarifying is similar to the questions offered in my prior post. He distinguishes five kinds of decisions we can see in the process of clarifying:
- Benevolent: all your options are good. What seems like a benevolent decision can sometimes indicate a deeper, hidden conflict. Ask yourself, "Am I creating options for myself in order to escape facing a deeper issue?"
- Neutral: You don't have a preference for any of your choices, yet you hesitate. This may be a sign of a conflict not yet seen, perhaps with another person of between objectives.
- Mixed: There are gains and losses inherent in all your options, and it's not clear which is the wisest choice.
- Undesirable: All your options have unpleasant consequences. In this circumstance listen to your heart: ask yourself which choice will be the easiest for you to live with, despite what are likely to be unpleasant external conditions.
- Unknowable: The consequences of the decision are unclear. For example, deciding whether to have a risky operation or an experimental medical procedure. It's a tough decision to make because you really don't know how it's going to play out. It's best not to make such a decision until you absolutely have to, and then clearly state to yourself the full consequences of making the choice versus staying with your current situation. People often underestimate the risks and downside of the unknown and exaggerate the negative aspects of the status quo.
Observe whether you're clinging to the idea of making the right decision. When you insist on a perfect outcome, you're only deluding yourself and procrastinating. Applying mindfulness, you'll recognize that there is no perfect outcome and that it's impossible to know what all the consequences of your decision will be, no matter what you choose.Write down what your mind is telling you to do, then what your heart seems to want, and finally what you intuition seems to be saying. People are often surprised to discover that these three centers of knowing are in conflict and that the conflict is paralyzing them. My usual advice is to go with your heart and intuition… but to do so utilizing the practical planning capacity of the mind.
One last piece of advice: Making difficult decisions is hard work and there is tremendous uncertainty in it. It can be physically as well as mentally exhausting and can overload your nervous system. Therefore, when you are dealing with a [major] decision, it is critical that you cultivate a nonjudgemental, forgiving, and kind attitude toward yourself throughout the process. Not only does such an attitude provide the calm space necessary for making the decision, it ripens these qualities, which are crucial for a meaningful and joyful life, within you.
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won't). James Baraz
Decision Time by Phillip Moffit